Guest Post, Dixie Salazar: On Art and Activism

image_09_05_030_apartheidMy first act of political activism was deciding to divorce my husband. He would sneer and make snide remarks every time he saw me painting and would only support my return to higher education if it was directed toward getting a job that made a ton of money. What was I doing with that guy, you may ask? It’s complicated, as the popular saying goes. Let’s just say that I got out, continued to paint, took up writing poetry when I returned to college and ended up in an MFA poetry program at Columbia University in New York, where my eyes were opened wide to a wider world of progressive politics. Columbia was the first university to divest in the anti-Apartheid movement, after Columbia students took over and held an administration building on campus for over a week. It was thrilling to be a part of this, even if I couldn’t sleep on the cold ground with the much younger undergrads. When I returned to California, I dived into art and activism both, dragging my children to anti-nuclear protest demonstrations, working for awhile as an art therapist in a mental hospital and eventually teaching art and writing in the both the men’s and women’s prisons.

My first day at Corcoran State Prison, walking across the yard by myself, being mad dogged by a hefty inmate pumping iron was scary until I smiled and said hello, and he smiled and said hello back. I kept going back because I loved the work and the inmates were so nice…no, really. They were so appreciative of every little thing I did for them and it was gratifying to see women who had no visits and no money even for commissary

weaving beautiful tote bags out of strips of plastic bread wrappers. I know they weren’t saints, but I got to know them and they trusted me and told me their stories. And eventually, I wrote poems in the voices of inmates, which appeared in at least two of my poetry books, the latest one, ALTAR FOR ESCAPED VOICES, from Tebot Bach, published in 2013.

Then my full time teaching job at the university ended because of budget cut backs, (I was an adjunct with a contract and benefits…a rare species). Why did I lose my job? Again, it was complicated. But I had more time to devote to my passions: art, writing and activism.

In 2009, I accompanied a friend who was making a film, set in the homeless encampments of H St, at that time a huge mass of makeshift dwellings patched together from blue tarps, scraps of wood and odd pieces of junk, by the railroad tracks downtown, with about two to three hundred homeless residents. I was so taken with the visual tableau that I came back with my camera and ended up with a photography show at city hall. It was fascinating how they put together living spaces with scavenged metal, wood, tarps, and all manner of discarded detritus. But mostly, I was entranced with how they personalized their spaces and even decorated for the holidays. One of these photos was published in SUPERSTITION REVIEW, a photo of a Christmas tree with raggedy tinsel, reflected in the oily bilge of a dirt parking lot adjacent to the encampments.

Some years later, a friend bought a  big house, with a half of an acre and opened up a transitional living shelter for the homeless. Immediately, I jumped on board and it’s been quite a ride. We have 12 to 13 clients at any given time, and we’ve learned to fly this plane in the air. But, also, I’ve met remarkable people, those who are truly at the bottom of the pile, both physically and metaphorically. And they’ve shared their stories and many of their voices have crept into my poems. I’m both amazed and appalled at how hated this segment of society is. Even some of my so called liberal friends will go on a rant about them digging through their trash or stealing copper wire from their church. I get this. But you can’t paint any group of people with one brush, and they aren’t all drug addicts or mentally ill. The homeless I know are incredible, smart, kind people who just needed some extra help. What I don’t get is how hard nosed people have gotten about helping those who are truly down and out. Yes, some have mental health issues and some have drug and alcohol issues, but let he or she whose family is without issues, cast the first stone. The housing first model works (with basic social services components wrapped in)…I’ve seen it work. And it’s amazing to see people move from dumpster diving to diving into homework or job applications. One of our residents conquered her addictions, is very close to receiving her drug and alcohol counseling certificate and is now living on her own with a part time job.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve taken these kinds of jobs to get material for poems, photos or paintings. I think that kind of process would be self defeating. It was quite the reverse for me. I took the jobs and got involved in the projects because that’s where my heart was. One of my favorite quotes is from Charlie Parker: “If it’s not in your life, it won’t come out your horn.”

Another hero, Albert Einstein said,  “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” I didn’t ever feel that making artwork was a choice for me and being involved in activist work that is meaningful is also not a choice. And it’s not complicated, it’s what I have to do because it’s who I am.

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12 thoughts on “Guest Post, Dixie Salazar: On Art and Activism

  • February 26, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    This was a thought-provoking guest post that I truly enjoyed. In multiple arenas of prison education and veteran healing, I have been looking at this link between art and activism as well, and I agree with her point that it is actually uncomplicated–it is part of who you are. Sometimes artists are hesitant to claim an “activism” platform because they do not want to seem like they are hiding behind a cause for fame, glory, or emotional impact. Or, they may feel that their art will not be taken seriously as art, but only as a platform with an artistic lens. However, I think that many of the emotional sources that artists go to can be loosely defined as activism. Much of the origins of art, whether of visual, musical, or literary medium, derive from an emotional subject matter that the artist cares about and is invested in. The products of these emotional sources then become an empathetic route for the audience to experience that particular emotion, and in essence, it “activates” something in them as well.

    So I would say art and activism may even need each other.

    • March 6, 2015 at 9:46 am

      As I read this post, I wondered if you had seen it, Jess! I agree, it is a thought-provoking post, and much in line with what we’re learning at Pen. I think that art is therapeutic, and in the absence of real mental/emotional/psychological treatment in the prison systems, any form of artistic expression is valuable. Attention or fame gained by the activism required to bring this about only serves to further the mission.

  • February 27, 2015 at 9:02 am

    This proved highly interesting to read. It is always intriguing to learn about what motivates people to get involved in activism. I loved that Dixie addressed the stigmas that are associated with inmates as well as the homeless community. I think that unfortunately these groups are dehumanized by the rest of society so I always enjoy we someone reminds people that, “you can’t paint any group of people with one brush, and they aren’t all drug addicts or mentally ill.” As I feel that can often be forgotten.

    I also agree with the comment Jessica made in that, art is qualified to be a form of activism. Anything that brings attention to an issue in my opinion should be considered activism. Artistic platforms are an incredible format for this as art frequently has a large fallowing, thus has the potential to solicit more attention to social issues.

  • March 1, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    As someone pursuing an English degree, I’m always surprised by how quick people are to tell artists that they’re in the wrong line of work. My parents still think I should have pursued something that pays better. But I think that art, writing included, works best as a way for an individual to share and output their feelings. Ms. Salazar’s activism is a perfect example of this. Art and activism go together so well because people who care enough about something to be actively involved in it are able to better make art that reflects their feelings.

  • March 1, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    This is a very inspiring post. I often hear that those who study English are setting themselves up for failure and won’t do anything beyond teaching. Ms. Salazar defies this and combines her art with activism for the populations most looked down upon by society. She shows us that our stereotypes against prisoners and the homeless are false through her art; I aim to do the same thing with my work. Shining a new light on a poorly romanticized aspect of society is part of art and literature. Just look at Dickens and Upton Sinclair. Dickens exposes the nastier side of London with its muck-filled streets and poor citizens. Sinclair shows the actual grotesqueness of the meat-packing industry. As Jessica said, art and activism need each other. What better way to show support of a cause than visual and written art?

    • March 10, 2015 at 1:37 am

      Very true. One of our favorite contemporary examples (though there are dozens to pick from) is Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. If you haven’t read it, we heartily recommend it.

  • March 2, 2015 at 5:15 am

    this goes to show that most people find a muse in something that they find worth it. Genuinely attached to his work he found a passion in describing his feelings towards what he feels is right is a beautiful thing.

  • March 2, 2015 at 11:22 am

    I hold a lot of reverence for those who devote themselves to sharing the stories of others. Art is certainly a form of activism, especially considering how it provides a platform for people who may be otherwise silenced by poverty, mental illness, illiteracy, or social outcast. I love that she says that artwork and being involved in activist work never felt like a choice for her. The selflessness she exhibits is very admirable and I think that we should all adopt this viewpoint. We have more than just a responsibility to create art from our own stories, but from the stories of those around us.

  • March 15, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    I find that this is inspiring to people who cant let go of what the real world want from them and what they want from themselves. I think that if you aren’t happy you need a drastic change. I think that artwork for a cause is a beautiful thing.I too love my artwork and I find myself becoming more inspired everyday to draw, I hope to one day be able to illustrate or work with art because I find that art almost is more self expressing then words. You only have 26 letters to choose from with words. With art you have pencil, paint, chalk, pen, anything that will make a mark really, and the colors are endless as well its all too great and anyone can do it.

  • March 16, 2015 at 9:50 am

    It was interesting to see how Dixie’s journey evolved. She showed that even when things do not go the way they should, one can still create something beautiful from it. She went out and did what made her happy and it payed off in the end. She followed her passion and ended up helping others with it. I loved that she incorporated Albert Einsteins quote,“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” It wrapped everything up nicely and left a inspiring aspect for readers. I enjoyed reading this because it was motivational and proves that even when things are not going your way you can turn it into something greater.

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